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Tilth Alliance – Where do we go from here?

Posted by ames.fowler | January 28, 2019

This year CSANR sponsored travel for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference in Spokane, WA. We are posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.  To view student posts from this year and prior years, visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/tag/tilth/

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Ames Fowler

Entering the Tilth Alliance conference, I was eager to put a finger on the pulse of sustainable agriculture in Washington State. I attended a wide variety of workshops pertinent to me as a small-scale farmer and an academic interested in the structural transformation of our agricultural systems. The collage of researchers, extension agents, and producers illuminated a portrait of the sustainable agriculture movement existing around the edges of population centers, meeting high-end demand, and struggling to impact both the general land management and consumption patterns. As a PhD student in Civil Engineering focusing on water resources and as a small farmer, I  caught myself often wondering about the collective benefits of ecosystem services and human health derived from growing and eating food well. These goods were often discussed on an individual level, but rarely systemically. I left the conference re-invigorated to join in re-centering collective benefits and fearful of our prospects of success.

My first encounter with the conception of the agricultural movement occurred in the Friday symposium on genetic diversity and breeding. The symposium was presented by researchers exploring the creation of varieties with a focus on the importance of traits beyond yield.  The end of the day transitioned to a panel discussion on the production and sale of nutrient dense food. The idea that “sustainable and organic methods” produce better food felt like an a priori assumption that more individual consumers were sure to light upon soon. Two chefs on the panel voiced real excitement and willingness to pay for the high-quality produce and protein they were receiving form LINC Foods. The cooperative distribution structure of LINC Foods, allowing small farmers to gain access to larger buyers, provided a welcomed turn in the conversation toward systems solutions – yet the conversation of the chefs still held local sustainable food as a benefit available to individuals able to pay the premium. What must we do to get beyond waiting on the consumer taste or growing only for the wealthy?

The following day I attended a lecture reporting on a preliminary feasibility study of locally grown frozen vegetables as a value-added enterprise expanding the market share of local produce. The speakers driving statistics suggested that the rapid growth in direct to consumer, local food production of the last two decades is slowing dramatically. This trend suggests a saturation of the population willing to pay a premium for local food and interested in interfacing with a farmer. The expansion of local food into value added frozen produce could open the market share of local food substantially, particularly for institutional buyers like schools, hospitals, eldercare facilities and prisons. The economics of scale remains a critical challenge in implementing this small-scale food processing enterprise, but the recognition of local food production as a public good was near universal in the presented data. This lecture excited me about the possibility of creative, cooperative solutions that change the accessibility and market share of local production.

The challenge of “making it” in the current food system was highlighted at dinner – where I had the chance to listen to two mid-career farmers’ recounting of what it takes to prosper and people who have not been successful. Success was associated with products the farmer believed in, proximity to population centers with income capable of the premiums, and a committed customer. Both farmers are quite successful, marked by their decades-long employments at their respective farms. Their conversation moved away from the individual to discuss the challenges they and their communities are facing in attempting to farm at small scales without mining the soils or neglecting the welfare of livestock. The resounding challenges of economies of scale and regulation came up in story after story: a lack of access to certified butchers; concern for the animal welfare of long hauls to slaughter; and dairies priced out the market. The hurdles facing young and small farmers require serious tenacity and perhaps some luck to overcome. These farmers’ passion and seriousness offered me a looking glass to one of my potential futures.

The Tilth conference reminded me that if I hope to see a shift in how we eat and how we manage our arable lands then we need systemic and structural change – we need low barriers  to entry with standards that scale with farm size and risk of harm – we need collaboration to attain economies of scale – we need a valuation of our collective benefits from healthy people and healthy ecosystems – we need equitable access to quality food. Whether it be as farmer or in support of farmers I hope to join the effort of those working for structural change that captures and is moved by collective benefits of a local food economy.

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